Scholars vs. Looters
There is no denying the fact that there have always been pillagers, some as mean as the devil and some as cunning as Jacob. Ethiopia knows both kinds, indeed. But we need to distinguish. True scholars are as far removed from malicious looters, as is the east from the west!
On the philological front, Europeans have been keen to studying Ge’ez chiefly because they believe that “die solange vernahlässigte äthiopische Grammatik denen der andern semitischen Sprachen ebebsoviel Licht bringt, als sie von ihnen empfängt” (the so long neglected Ethiopic Grammar sheds quite as much light on the other Semitic languages as it receives from them” (Dillmann). Examples abound, but let me save them for another occasion.
Philology is not an end in itself. Once the grunt work of philology is done, there follows interpretation. To my knowledge, only few people have devoted their undivided attention on this front, that is, to establishing historical facts about the country and to interpreting the cultural life of its people. To limit myself to those whom I studied relatively closely, I should perhaps mention the two Donald’s: Donald Crummey and Donald Levine. The later rightly points out that: “if we seek some theme with which to gain an entree into the spirit of their society and culture, we will do well to attend to the sphere of poetry.”—A phenomenon confirming Hölderlin’s conviction, that „Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth“! But I was not too sure if he was correct to describe our society as the most ambiguous one in contrast to American society that he held to be the most open.
After attending the Second Littmann Conference in Aksum in January 2006, the late Prof. Levine and I were in the same airplane flying back to Addis when I raised this issue to him. He was surprised at first that I read his book written not for Ethiopians in particular but for sociologists in general (I was referring to his “The Flight from Ambiguity”). He asked me what I was doing and I replied that I was teaching at the Holy Trinity Theological College. In his answer to my question he said he did not mean that Ethiopian society was actually ambiguous but that he took it merely as an “ideal type.” At the time, together with some close friends of mine, I had also established an association called “Tensa’e Ge’ez” (=Resurrection of Ge’ez). Among other things, we were planning to open Ge’ez schools in Addis Ababa and in Bahr Dar for a start, with the intention to continue doing the same in other cities as well. It was when I informed Prof. Levine of this, that he got really excited! He was so happy about it that he promised to support us in any way he could. Unfortunately, the association ceased to exist immediately after I came to Canada in July of the same year.
Efforts to Prererve Manuscripts
Of bigger projects pertaining to our intellectual heritage, however, none would be as noteworthy for me as that of EMML (Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilm Library). An example may show the significance of this project. One of the libraries covered by this project was that of the Monastery of Dabra Hayq, the richest in the country in its collection of Manuscripts. When Abuna Athanasius of South Wollo reinstated the communal status of this monastery, I was assigned to write a short history of it to be read on the occasion for the monks as well as the people gathered there. While writing the paper, I wanted to include the list of the abbots from the beginning until the current one and to provide a brief biography of some of them, especially those who have reached sainthood. One such abbot-saint is Abba Bestawros, and I knew about him from Gadla Bestawros that I read on microfilm (EMML), so I supplied the story from there. But when Abuna Athanasius realized this, he wanted to secure the original MS for the monastery. The catalogue has it that at the time of filming, that particular Manuscript belonged to an individual rather than to the library of the monastery. So we identified some relatives of that individual (because he himself had long passed away) and approached them with the intention to buy the Manuscript for the monastery (we were so desperate that we would have paid for it however much they asked!). But those people did not know anything about it and hence nothing was left for us than to have it copied from the microfilm on a new parchment. Thanks to EMML, although the manuscript was lost, the content was not--and so we were able to have it copied on a new parchment!
Therefore, it should be like music to our ears when we now hear that Prof. Michael Gervers et al have put together projects “to digitize” our really “endangered archives” (It cannot be emphasized enough how endangered they really are!). If anything, we need to get ourselves involved. For instance, Prof. Gervers mentioned about Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. I was in Germany when this project started and I have contributed articles for two small entries. But I don’t recall a single Ethiopian being member of the task force Prof. Uhlig then formed under his leadership. I do not know the reason, but it does not seem to be right, at least for me. In any case, to demand for involvement is one thing but to curtail such a sacred project is not merely unfortunate, it is deplorable!
Let me close my observation by expressing my deep respect to true scholars as I did before in the paper mentioned in my previous post. In the section preceding my short account of Prof. Getatchew Haile’ contributions, I had the following to say about western scholars who studied our Andemta tradition:
[An excerpt from a paper presented to]
The XV International Conference of Ethiopian Studies
The XV International Conference of Ethiopian Studies
Hamburg University, 21-25 July 2003
The Intellectual Legacy of the Ethiopian Church:
A Philosophico-Hermeneutical Reappraisal of “Andəmta”
Fisseha Tadesse Feleke
How much Roger Cowley has contributed to research in Andəmta cannot be said enough here. In a word: he has paved the way! And now, people are following him. Sister Pederson has studied Andəmta of the Psalms, in which she believes to have confirmed Cowley’s findings, but also evokes further discussion. Miguel Angel Garcia’s study of Micah could serve a model for dealing with individual texts. Verena Boell has treated an Andəmta of Ethiopian text—the Anaphora of Mary. Her verification of the Ethiopian origin of the text itself is significant for the history of Ethiopian literature. Friedrich Heyer’s contribution to Andəmta is redoubled by the financial help he has provided to the school [I had “Tabor Society” in mind]. Oh, if only words were able to express one’s gratefulness to him! There are few more who have been studying Andəmta, and some, who are ready to help Ethiopian traditional Church scholarship survive and revive. Their motives, diverse but generally positive...
 Among others, Christine A. Challiot has for instance been motivating promising students of the Holy Trinity College to do something for traditional school system. She is even ready to provide financial assistance for any feasible project in that direction.